Assistance Programs Can Help Entire Firm

Article excerpt

Journal Record Staff Reporter

A supervisor for a manufacturing plant, news room or law firm is a manager, not a guidance counselor. No wonder these individuals can feel overwhelmed when faced with an employee's alcohol, drug, financial or family problems.

In times past, when personal problems spilled over and affected an employee's job performance, management dealt with the situation as best it could. Perhaps the individual was fired and given the name of a substance abuse treatment center. Or maybe the supervisor took on the employee's problems, serving as a shoulder to cry on and appearing to show favoritism.

Companies today are increasingly turning to employee assistance programs to eliminate inept, inconsistent handling of personal employee problems. The programs provide a professional person, trained in assessing these issues, who employees can talk to confidentially. Then the employee assistance counselor can refer the worker where he or she can get the needed support or help.

Employee assistance programs are available in a range of coverages and costs.

"Employee assistance programs improve job performance in the long run," said Jamie Leal, who has spent more than 15 years in drug and alcohol counseling, working with employee assistance programs and acting as a liaison between business and industry and the mental health and chemical dependency field.

A program can "improve employee morale and help supervisors deal with employees who are having job performance problems," she said. "Employee assistance programs can be used as part of the progressive disciplinary procedure to give the employee an opportunity to change his behavior before he loses his job."

Ultimately, employee assistance can result in savings to a company. If performance is down due to a personal problem, chances are the problem can be resolved through appropriate outside resources and the company avoids having to invest in hiring and training a new employee, said Leal, a licensed professional counselor with a master's degree in education.

"Employee assistance programs are also very helpful because they give managers support in the process of identifying and working with problem employees," she said. "They're (managers) not trained as therapists, and they can lose their perspective sometimes when they take an employee under their wing and become emotionally invested and over protective."

An employee assistance program doesn't change an employee's status with the company; if he or she is already in trouble, such issues as arriving for work promptly and behaving courteously toward customers still must be resolved. But depending on the need, the employee assistance professional can steer an employee toward a private social worker for counseling, a chemical dependency treatment program, a financial counseling center, 12-step group or community counseling center whose fees are on a sliding scale, Leal said.

It is advantageous for employees to have access to an employee assistance representative, because that person can "jump-start" them on the way to the particular kind of help they need. For example, the representative should be aware of therapists who specialize in certain areas, and may be able to match the personalities of the employee and potential therapist.

Otherwise, it takes perseverance and a "weeding out" process for an individual to find a therapist on his own, Leal said.

Employee assistance programs had their roots in alcohol abuse problems, but a number of issues today are taking a toll on workers. Included are workplace violence, stress, and layoffs or "rightsizing. …